Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Wild speculation

So, I was reading this article in the Sydney Morning Hearld yesterday, and began thinking about Nozick's Experience Machine (as one does).

The computer game industry is fast becoming a defining element of our world. Unbelievable amounts of effort, talent and creativity, not to mention money are poured into this field year after year to satisfy an increasingly widespread demographic of our population. Unfortunately, marketing being as it is, games are fast becoming required to be more and more consuming of the user's resources in order to maintain dominance over the hearts, minds and wallets of the client base. This is not to mention that due to the intensely interactive nature of games today, art no longer imitates life so much as it leads to its creation (seriously, hang out on the Internet for more than about an hour and you will discover entire languages. Forget antrhropology in the world, far stranger cultures exist online). However, I can't help but be concerned by the levels of immersiveness being implied by the article. While Nozick's argument was designed as a refutation of hedonism, as I understand it, I think that it speaks to something else, which is a questioning of the fantastic as a dominant force in a person's life. What does it mean when a former recreational activity can be integrate and come to dominate someone's life, providing pleasure, but consuming substantial resources and creating social interactions which, while genuine, are weaker than those formed in the corporeal world due to the removal of some of the basic risks of the social world? When fun turns into duty (and if anyone out there has a friend who plays Everquest or World of Warcraft, you know what I'm talking about), and social interactions with non-players become left on the wayside?

I don't wish to postulate that computer games are in and of themselves bad things: computer games have for years been an extension of other games functioning as learning and teaching tools, often without the user realising it. They teach decision making, visuo-spatial recognition, and a wide range of teamwork behaviours, they really do. But the same body of literature emerging from psychology about their merits also carries with it a darker set of observations. I'm not necessarily talking about violent computer games making violent people. While that is certainly on the table (sorry gamer kids, it really is), the weakened but still rationalised social features, the immersiveness and escapist quality that can endlessly stimulate many minds, indicate to me that as technology continues to advance in this area at a mind boggling rate, Nozick's machine might leave the realm of thought and actually pose us an applied ethics problem: possessing this machine, do we allow ourselves or others to use it? Especially knowing what we know from thought experiments in the past, and on the problems associated with addictive activities.


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